US maps the human brain

The US government has launched a long-running research project aimed at mapping the human brain.

Dubbed the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), the initiative will launch with around $100 million of initial funding in 2014, supported by the National Institutes of Health, Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and National Science Foundation.

Apparently the mapping project will be similar to a major search engine driving a very small car through your brain and calling itself “brain view.” The plan is to develop tiny probes to sense how neural networks operate, as well as data processing tools capable of dealing with the vast amount of information involved.

It is meant to help develop new technologies that will let researchers explore how brain cells interact, potentially leading to better treatment for diseases like Alzheimers and epilepsy.

At the moment a group of NIH scientists has been told to come up with goals and cost estimates, and several private research organisations have pledged more cash to the project over the next decade.

They will have to look at whether mapping the brain will upset fundamentalists, which is the litmus test for much scientific research in the US. Apparently there are concerns that curing Alzheimers might have ethical and moral implications – after all, how will a loving God be able to smite the elderly if one of his favourite illnesses is taken away?

It has been the “ethical considerations” which mean that the US is about a year behind Europe in this sort of research. Earlier this year, the European Commission chose the Human Brain Project as one of its Future and Emerging Technology flagships, granting an initial $72 million to researchers attempting to create a detailed model of the brain to help treat diseases and spur new models for computing.

In a statement, the White House detailed advancements that each agency could help make. DARPA will attempt to develop tools to record and analyse brain functions, and, God willing, wants to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress or brain injuries.